Growing up bilingual
According to a report published by Frank Field MP in 2009, 29% of primary schools in England have 70% or more pupils who speak English as a second language. This can present quite a challenge for the teaching staff. There is a myth that it’s enough for a child to be immersed in a foreign language to pick it up as if by magic – this is only partly true.
Many foreign children given total immersion in an English school do not find it easy. It takes time for them to adapt and start understanding the language. In Bradford, for example, local authorities and schools have had discussions about getting Polish teachers to help the eastern European children with their learning in a foreign language.
Those children who go to English schools develop a good grasp of English but are unlikely to continue learning how to read and write with accuracy in their native language. There are Saturday schools and after school programmes that offer children lessons in their native language. Many families would like their children to be able to slip back into their country’s educational system should they return to their country of origin.
The families who want their children to learn their native language to a high standard can opt for schools teaching in their mother-tongue only, like the French Lycée or the Spanish school in London. In that case, they forego the opportunity to learn the language of the country they live in. It seems that whatever option the parents’ choose, their children miss out on an important part of their education.
The other alternative that parents can choose for their children is bilingual education. There are several bilingual schools in the UK. Wix primary school in London was the first state school to open a bilingual stream, in conjunction with the French Lycée, in September 2006. For many French families, it was like a dream come true. At last their children could follow both the French and the British educational curriculums. However, bilingual education comes at a price.
Bilingual education has become increasingly popular among English speaking families as well. It is probably easier for foreign children to pick up English as they are exposed to the language outside school hours.
On the other hand, children with an English background are slightly disadvantaged because in most cases, their only chance to hear and speak the foreign language is at school. Parents have to seek out opportunities to expose their children to the foreign language outside school. In both cases, if the children manage to grasp the foreign language structure, fluency only comes with practice.
Overall, the bilingual stream at Wix has been successful. The French national exam results for a class of 28 pupils speak for themselves, as it says in a report in The Guardian: “Six of the English and five of the French pupils scored in the highest category, denoting a "very good understanding.”
In the nations, there has been a big resurgence in bilingual education with more that six times as many children being taught in Irish medium schools as there had been in 1997-98, for example. There is a similar trend in Wales and Scotland.
The benefits of children learning two languages simultaneously are supported by research. It’s been found to sharpen a child’s mind, and in one recent study at Bangor University to protect against the effects of ageing on the brain.
When I listen to bilingual children speaking, what strikes me most is how naturally they switch between two languages in order to express their thoughts - their world is broader.
Imane Robelin is a French freelance journalist who has 3 children and lives in the UK.